Is it safe to go back to the gym? How to protect against coronavirus when working out

As gyms reopen, we consulted an infectious disease expert on how to stay safe from germs during your workouts.

Mercey Livingston CNET Contributor
Mercey Livingston is a health and wellness writer and certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. She's written about fitness and wellness for Well+Good, Women's Health, Business Insider, and Prevention.com among others. When not writing, she enjoys reading and trying out workout classes all over New York City.
Mercey Livingston
5 min read
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Gyms and fitness studios were some of the first businesses to close their doors when the COVID-19 pandemic struck the US, and now they are among the first places to reopen in some states according to the White House's three-phase reopening plan (PDF). Gyms, along with movie theaters and places of worship, were included in the first phase of the plan. But how do you know if it's safe to go back to your gym?

According to the administration's plan, gyms have to adhere to "strict physical distancing and sanitation protocols" when they reopen. It's not clear what those specific protocols are at this time, but it's likely the number of people allowed in a fitness center will be severely limited, you will have to remain 6 feet apart while exercising, you'll need to sanitize equipment after using it, wash your hands more often, and you might even need to wear a mask

Even with all of those measures in place, going back to the gym can seem risky. But at the same time, many people are itching to get back into a healthy routine and work out at a brick-and-mortar place that is not their living room.

To find out more insight on if going back to the gym soon is a good idea, and how to protect yourself when you go, I tapped infectious disease expert and MD Dr. Sandra Kesh. The CDC also recently updated its guidelines for best practices during personal and social activities, including going to the gym. Keep reading below for the best tips on how to stay safe when you head back to your gym.

Should you go to the gym when it reopens?

Many people are itching to get out of the house and back into society. But whether or not it's really that safe for you to go is a complicated answer. According to Dr. Kesh, the safest place for you to exercise is outdoors. The CDC agrees, and saying that opting for outdoor workouts or virtual workouts is your safest bet. 


Exercising outdoors is the safest option during a pandemic.

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"I still prefer people to go outdoors for exercise. I think it becomes much easier to socially distance, unless you are running with a pack of people. Gyms are very well ventilated, but we do know how far this virus can spread. So if you are in a gym and you're doing a vigorous workout, you're breathing hard, someone near you might cough. There's a lot of potential for aerosolization of things that in an outdoor setting is much less problematic, since the particles disperse very quickly in the open air," Dr. Kesh says.

If you live in a dense urban area with a lot of people walking around outside or little access to nature, going outside for exercise may not be an easy option for you. In that case, Dr. Kesh says it's OK to head back to a gym, but only once you've exhausted your other options. 

"For my own patients I recommend that they head outdoors, especially as it gets warmer. And if they have no alternative and feel that it's important to their overall well-being, then they can go to a gym," she says.

Remember that virtual workouts are also an option, and many are completely free. You can find free workout classes on Instagram, and there are many free fitness YouTube channels that cater to all kinds of exercises.

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How to stay safe when you go back to the gym

If you find yourself with no other option but to go to a gym, try to go at an off hour when it's likely to be less crowded -- like early morning, late morning and later in the evening -- and wear your mask while you work out. Dr. Kesh also advises to avoid fitness classes, since you will likely be in a smaller space and around more people. 

"I discourage the classes for now at least, and that's irrespective of when they [relax] the social distancing. I think that's something to wait until the disease is really down beyond that descending part of the disease curve," Kesh says. The CDC also recommends that you avoid or limit group training sessions or classes for the time being. But if you do exercise in a group, it's highly important that you remain six feet away from others at all times and wear a mask.

When you use equipment at a gym, be extra vigilant about cleaning it before and after you use it. "When it comes to cleaning equipment, wipe it down before and after. When we sweat and wipe our face and then touch the handle, we're constantly exposing and saturating that device with germs. So clean off the equipment before and after, even if the person who used it before you looks totally fine. Remember that anywhere from 25% to 50% of infected people may not have symptoms but can still transmit the virus," Dr. Kesh says. The CDC says to avoid using certain types of equipment that are difficult to clean after each use, such as resistance bands or weightlifting belts.


Exercise studios and classes will need to follow strict precautions like proper spacing, air ventilation, and sanitation to keep people safe. 

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What to look for if you go to a fitness studio class

If you do go back to a fitness class, Kesh recommends finding a studio that follows the practices listed below, at a minimum. You should also wear a cloth face mask in class to minimize exposure.

Ventilation: Ideally studios are prioritizing air flow by opening windows, using a fan or opening the doors to keep the air moving.

Spacing: The class should not be crowded, and people should be able to keep their distance without difficulty.

Instructors should be wearing a mask: "Because a lot of times they are speaking and projecting a loud voice. And you aerosolize the virus even when you're speaking," Kesh says. 

"Every gym is planning to do different things and so you have to find the ones that are taking this very seriously, and those are the ones I would patronize," Kesh says. Check that your gym or fitness studio is following the right cleaning and distancing protocols before you head over, so that you can have some peace of mind during your workout.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.